‘The sweetness of doing nothing’: When did comedies stop being about anything?


There’s a film out at the moment called Bridesmaids, you might have heard of it. You won’t need to look far to find a columnist’s opinion on the film, usually with regard to the bit where Maya Rudolph evacuates her bowels in the middle of a busy street. Never before has hot filth spewing forth from a woman’s rectum inspired such heated debate. The argument surrounding the film has thus far been largely semantic and can be summarised thusly: “Women shitting, eh?” on the one hand, and “Women shitting…. EH?!” on the other. It’s all pretty wearying and stupid and boiling any film down to its base constituents to make a point about a specific moral and cultural issue (take a bow, The Killer Inside Me) has a lot of self-evident problems, particularly when the person in question isn’t particularly au fait with cinema history. Quicker than you can say Tootsie, Irving Rapper and the “women’s picture” or the selected back catalogue of George Cukor, the commentariat line themselves up in the street, drop their britches, and commence plopping out flaming bricks of human faecal chocolate, Rudolph-style, whilst the general public are left to slide about in the resulting crap-storm. It’s a scene, all right.

Ask which films have betrayed the female cause in just the last few years, and you provoke a lightning storm: When in Rome, The Switch, The Back-Up Plan, 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth, Letters to Juliet, Leap Year, He’s Just Not That Into You, Valentine’s Day, The Bounty Hunter, Bride Wars to pick but a few. Invert the question and ask which have been bad for men, and the list is equally exhaustive: Miss March, The Virginity Hit, Observe and Report, Hall Pass, The Hangover, The Hangover Part II, Due Date, Hot Tub Time Machine and, whatever your view on the man, the collected oeuvre of Judd Apatow, both as producer and director. There are other films, like Love and Other Drugs and Couples Retreat, which arguably do equal damage to both parties. In all the above cases, we rarely have any insight into the characters’ motivations other than who they’d like to sleep with, and they also have a ready supply of disposable and anonymous best friends upon which to dump their problems. Furthermore, they usually have a successful ‘career’ of some description that’s barely mentioned unless it’s part and parcel of the plot and/or the insane achievement of a strong, successful, likable, complex, opinionated woman who manages to juggle a career in the city whilst navigating her ungainly love life. Morning Glory and the upcoming I Don’t Know How She Does It fit into this camp. Generally speaking, though, the most galling attributes of all these films is that none of the characters have any money troubles. At all. None. Outside of the myriad travails concomitant with ramming each other sexually, the rest of their lives barely register in the events of the narrative. There are bigger problems afoot here outside of gender.

Just Go With It, starring Adam Sandler as a "lovable" plastic surgeon

That the affluence of these characters is taken as a given strikes me as odd, particularly since we’ve been in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s for three years now, with only Confessions of a Shopaholic for comfort. Take a look at a similar list of films produced in the period which fall under the banner of ‘screwball comedy’ which cast its either self-consciously ‘daffy’ rich protagonists as either dunderheads, hapless married couples or out-of-touch fools: My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve, The Great McGinty, The Awful Truth, The Palm Beach Story, Nothing Sacred, It Happened One Night, Twentieth Century and Easy Living. Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be managed to interrogate Communism and Nazism respectively, whilst The Shop Around the Corner casts its leading man and woman as mismatched lovers in the retail sector. The best we can currently muster is Adam Sandler as a ‘lovable’ plastic surgeon in a film whose very title seems to expressly summarise our era’s louche and blasé attitude towards romantic comedies: Just Go With It.

Whilst American independent cinema has made some strides to tackle the subject of poverty with the likes of Frozen River, Winter’s Bone, Wendy and Lucy and The Company Men which treat the subject with a po-faced seriousness that would have given Stanley Kramer a boner, mainstream comedy completely flounders. It’s either stuck in the mire of Fox Searchlight-produced boutique comedies (Tom McCarthy’s Win Win is the only notable exception) or floundering in a pit of effete mumblecore, a movement that was barely interesting in the first place, which has seen most of its primary players (the Duplass Brothers, Greta Gerwig) co-opted by the studios and nullified anyway. They seem to have heeded the advice of John Lloyd Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels (“Don’t you think with the world in its present condition, with death snarling at you from every street corner, people are a little allergic to comedies?”) and implemented it a little too literally.

I’m not particularly interested in unpacking the existing gender-based arguments of Bridesmaids or any of these films that reduce half the adult population to catch-all demographic rarely seen outside of a promotional campaigns for Boots, and I’m not particularly interested in joining in the heralding of a new comedic ‘era’ for humans that happen to carry a Y-chromosome and menstruate every month until they hit the menopause. What interests me about Bridesmaids is its most unique aspect: its protagonist’s crummy, cash-strapped lifestyle. Its main character is Annie, a single, 30+ woman who, at one point in her life, ran a bakery. Though it’s not the only dilemma she faces during the film, Annie is presented with two men as potential partners – a sensitive new man in her life who supports her former occupation, and an on-again/off-again fuck buddy with an unbridled sexual rapacity and the emotional inarticulacy of Tommy Cooper’s scrotum. She ends up with the sensitive guy.

It's Complicated - "'hilarious' vagina-patting sessions"

The above description might sound familiar. That’s because you saw a similar film two years ago called It’s Complicated, directed by Nancy Meyers, which made all the mistakes Bridesmaids did not. It’s Complicated similarly boasted an erstwhile baker with a rocky love life, only this time she was played by Meryl Streep.  Streep, in that film, was – to put it mildly – a shrieking harpie who wailed about “remodelling” her cavernous luxury home in-between ‘hilarious’ vagina-patting sessions with two men: Alec Baldwin (the rapacious fuck buddy) and Steve Martin (the sweet guy who supports her bakery business). Streep ends up with Steve Martin. Presumably they bake cakes together.

The difference between the two films? In Bridesmaids Annie’s bakery went under during the recession. She lives in rented accommodation and works a menial job, until both prove untenable and she has to move in with her mother. Streep, by contrast, romps around a boundless patisserie of wonders stuffing pie crust into her and Martin’s faces like a pair of contented suckling calves, footloose and fancy free. Streep also has three disgusting grown-up children who are a straight replay of the snots from Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows, without the social commentary. Personally I find Meyers’ Wonka-style baking fantasy-land far more offensive than a talented comedienne taking a dump on the street. Take a gander at Meyers’ previous films – What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give and The Holiday – and she’s done almost as much to injure the face of contemporary American comedy as Paul Haggis did to drama with the misplaced berserko-hysteria of Crash.

But wait, there’s more. Like any rational carbon-based life form, I’ve avoided the two Sex and the City films but from what I can surmise from the critical reaction most of the plot seems to revolve around aging rich spinster Kim Cattrall’s preternaturally talented and ethereal vagina, which she uses to trick shoe salesman into giving her freebies and amassing her capitalist empire of battery-powered dildos. And this is without mentioning the mirthless and bankrupt Eat Pray Love –wherein a successful author hotfoots it from New York – to stuff her face with pasta and revel in the ‘sweetness of doing nothing’ whilst cramming food she knows is bad for her down her gullet in penance for a lifetime of capitalist myopia. Ho fucking hum.

The thematic overtures of It’s Complicated, Sex and the City and the cod exoticism of Eat Pray Love are just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the spell cast by Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan  – whose knowingly ironic dilettantes proudly strut around with the moniker UHB or “urban-haute bourgeoisie” – has since been perfected by Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson and, to a lesser extent, Nicole Holofcener. Running with Scissors, Smart People, Lymelife and the Meet the Parents franchise toy with similar themes. Alexander Payne and David O Russell, previously two independent filmmakers whose debut pictures dealt with abortion and incest in an uproarious fashion, now wax and wane on the spiritual chasm awaiting bourgeois complacency, as witnessed by Sideways and Russell’s manic self-parody, I Heart Huckabees.

What’s most important about Bridesmaids, though, is that its character’s spiral to hit rock bottom feels real, and real in a way we haven’t seen for a long time. The few films in cinemas this year which pay lip service to the problems of encroaching poverty, Bad Teacher and Larry Crowne, set breast enhancement and motivational speaking as lazy thematic crutches on which to hang their hats, rather than engaging with the subjects proper. In 1964, whilst Robert Benton and David Newman were writing Bonnie and Clyde, the Esquire journalists called the era’s receptivity to cultural trends – and its willingness to plough through them – the New Sentimentality, a sweet name for a tough proposition, that promised to either violently explode the assurances of Eisenhower-era affluence and complacency, or rake its condescending assumptions about consumerist society over the coals. Bridesmaids aside, I call ours the Eternal Mediocrity.

Contributor Sam Price runs the film blog A Tremendous Amount of Wheat. You can follow him on Twitter @_wheat.

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1 thought on “‘The sweetness of doing nothing’: When did comedies stop being about anything?

  1. Cathy Landicho

    Wasn’t expecting such a substantive piece on this particular film! The characters that populate comedies lately do seem to get increasingly flatter, totally lacking dimension – I’m not sure if this is just laziness on the filmmakers’ parts, or cynicism that viewers can’t/won’t see films that challenge their world perspectives… or both. Calling now the age of “Eternal Mediocrity” might be too kind – I’d say it’s more like the age of “Pervasive Apathy.”


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